Going My Way on the Camino de Santiago

Thanks to the amazing generosity of one of our benefactors, I recently went on an intense, two-week pilgrimage to Spain, lasting from June 17 to 29. Flying into and out of Madrid, our little band of twenty-two pilgrims went to Zaragoza, Ágreda, Burgos, Covadonga, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, and Ávila. Five days of the trip were spent walking the last 114 kilometers of the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. The other cities we toured, modern-style, in a tour bus, and with professional tour guides on site.

I hope to be able to write some additional short pieces for our website concerning the trip. In this Ad Rem, I would like to focus my attention on the Camino (“the Way”), that is, the pilgrim path to the shrine of Saint James the Greater in Galicia, Spain’s northwest extremity.

First, by way of introduction, I will borrow from a piece by Eleonore Villarrubia that we published on our site some fourteen years ago, Catholic Pilgrimage, a Spiritual Journey, which thus describes the Camino:

Camino de Santiago

One of the oldest and most popular pilgrimage sites over the centuries has been the Camino de Santiago (Highway of Saint James) in northern Spain and southern France. The great cathedral of Compostela in Galicia — the northwestern-most province of Spain — contains the relics of Saint James the Greater, who traveled there after Pentecost to evangelize the pagans of that land. Earliest records of pilgrims coming to the tomb of the Apostle from the Spanish side of the Pyrenees date from the eighth century, with records from the tenth century of other pilgrims crossing those daunting mountains from France. It became the habit of pilgrims walking the route and finally arriving at their destination months later to take home with them the scallop shell, taken from the waters off the coast of Finisterre (the end of the world) as proof that they had in fact completed the journey. By the twelfth century, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage had become so popular that hostelries were built within a day’s walk of each other, towns sprang up around these stops on the road, and enormous Romanesque style churches were built to accommodate the huge crowds of worshipers who passed by on their way to Compostela. During the times when pilgrimages were assigned as penance for grave sin, the site of the tomb of Santiago was one of the four major pilgrimage destinations. (The other three sites were the churches of the Apostles Peter and Paul in Rome, the shrine of Saint Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, and the cathedral of Cologne, Germany, wherein are enshrined the relics of the Three Kings.)

Today the Camino is as popular as ever. Sadly, though, there are more “pilgrims” making the walk for the sake of simply “making the walk” (sort of like hiking the Appalachian Trail). One can do it the original way — on foot — or by automobile, bus, or train. Today there is actually a luxurious train excursion to Compostela costing about six thousand dollars — nice for the modern traveler who can afford such a treat, but not something our medieval forebears would recognize as a pilgrimage. This year (2010) is a Compostelan Holy Year, just as is every year that has the feast of St. James (July 25) occurring on a Sunday. In his message marking the beginning of this Holy Year, Pope Benedict XVI wrote to Archbishop Julián Barrio Barrio that the “essential goal of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela” is “of a spiritual character” — adding that “although in some cases there is a tendency to ignore or distort it.”

Because I had read that piece years ago, and have read other things about the Camino besides — and yes, the Brothers saw the Martin Sheen film, The Way — I had no illusions of the Camino being a purely spiritual and religious affair for all those who make it. (Anyone remotely familiar with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will be disabused of the notion that pilgrims are all saintly — or even decent people — and it was thus more than six centuries ago!) For many, the Camino is a journey of culture, athleticism, self-discovery, escapism, or some other purpose not exactly in line with the faith, hope, and charity of Saint James the Greater, Spain’s Apostle. So yes, there was immodesty to be seen along the Way, and teenagers playing ridiculous music on speakers dangling from their backpacks, crazy graffiti, etc. But none of that shocked me or put me off too much because I try to keep in mind a thought I have seen attributed (accurately or no) to Hilaire Belloc: “He who dips his fingers in holy water, for whatever reason, ends up by believing.” Certainly this is not a formulation of dogma, but it is a testimony to the way grace can work through those consecrated externals we call sacramentals — and a pilgrimage is very much a sacramental thing. The story of Saint Mary of Egypt comes to mind, who went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage with the express intention of seducing her fellow pilgrims. Her conversion began when she was miraculously prevented by some invisible force from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the pilgrims’ destination. Her subsequent penitent life of extreme asceticism led to her being the only female saint I know of who can be depicted bare-chested according to the strict canons of Eastern iconography; she became so physically emaciated that it simply did not matter, and that is what the iconographers wished to show: the transformation of a voluptuous prostitute into a saintly ascetic.

The lesson: Matter matters, and holy things and holy places can be powerful instruments of grace for the conversion of the wayward — if that word is not out of place here.

Numerous saints have walked the Camino on pilgrimage. It is contested whether Saint Francis of Assisi did so, but it is certain that Saint Elizabeth of Portugal did, as did Saint William of Montevergine, a.k.a., Saint William of Vercelli. Saint Bridget of Sweden walked the Camino (among other pilgrimages), and Saint Dominic de la Calzada actually built parts of it for the safety of the pilgrims, thus earning for himself the patronage of civil engineers. The immensely popular Saint Roch (Rocco, Roque) is strongly associated with the Camino, not because he himself walked it, but because he was famous as a pilgrim to Rome, and for disguising himself as a humble pilgrim to flee his noble station in life. Due to his circumstances, he was also commonly invoked against plagues and pestilences, which, for medieval pilgrims, was very important. Iconography of Saint Roch may be found all over the Camino, with or without his dog, always with his scallop shells, and almost always showing his sore.

The Matins lesson for Saint William of Montevergine mentions his walking the Camino, and the collect for his feast almost certainly refers to this in two places:

O God, Who made Thy Saints an example and a help for our weakness; grant us, as we walk the path of salvation, so to venerate the virtues of the blessed Abbot William that we may obtain his intercession and follow in his footsteps.

Saint William’s Matins lesson and collect particularly excited our little band as his feast, June 25, took place during our pilgrimage; I was therefore reading that lesson and praying that oration in the Divine Office in via. We don’t call this mere coincidence; it’s Providence, pilgrim!

There are many paths of the Camino. The ancient routes begin in France, but there are routes from Portugal, and various points south and east. I checked, and there is a 1,200 kilometer Camino from the shrine of Montserrat, in Spain’s extreme northeast, to Compostella. Thus, the magnificent Catalan shrine of Our Lady can be the starting part of a pilgrimage to the Galician shine of Saint James. Today, in order to obtain “La Compostela,” the official certificate issued by the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela testifying to one’s completion of the Camino, a pilgrim has to complete 100 kilometers of the pilgrimage — a little over sixty-two miles. That is if one does it on foot. It is permitted to do the Camino on bicycle, for which the requirement is currently 200 kilometers. (Yes, it is at times a minor nuisance to have to get out of the way of bikers, but, mercifully, these two-wheeled pilgrims are required to take different paths on some parts of the Camino.) Amazingly there are some who make the pilgrimage from further distances, as the Italian gentleman I heard about who started his pilgrimage to Compostella from his backyard. While I was there, I met a man named Serge, who made pilgrimage from Belgium with his donkey. Belgium! Look at a map. The man and his poor beast had to traverse France longways — northeast to southwest — before even crossing the Pyrenees. Needless to say, their options for places to stay would be limited, so the pack animal (Serge did not ride the donkey) had what I surmise was a tent among the bags he carried. Serge and I photographed each other, so here he is:

In order to prove to the officials in Santiago that he has gone the required distance, the pilgrim must present his pilgrim’s passport (Credencial del Peregrino), which has to be stamped at least twice daily by qualified persons, who may be hotel personnel, church sacristans, cafe staff, restaurant owners, policemen, and some seemingly unlikely persons who have tables set up at the side of wooded paths to stamp the passport. Upon arriving at Compostela, one walks a couple of blocks from the Cathedral of Santiago and presents his credentials to an official, obtaining his Compostela in short order. I was impressed with the efficiency of the process. Some of the stamps, by the way, are little works of art. One gentleman stamped the passports with an old-fashioned hot-wax stamp, which dazzled some in our party. I have eighteen very diverse stamps in my Credencial.

Our six-day Camino began in Sarria, 114 kilometers from the Cathedral, according to the official marker where we all started. (Such markers grace the Camino at intervals, revealing to the pilgrims their current distance from the goal.)

The scenery along the Camino path is lovely. Sometimes, one goes through cities and towns, but there are many rural places, and some very old farms. We saw lots of crops, including corn for the pigs and beef cattle in their fields abutting the Way. There were also sheep, including a very exotic looking breed I’ve never seen before, with gracefully curved horns. Hydrangeas of various colors, lavender (a cash crop in the region), roses, and myriad wildflowers and grasses line the path in places, as do large oaks, pines, and flowering magnolias of the type I am used to from my native Dixie. Cultivated landscaping and wild wooded areas are gracefully interspersed, and I got the distinct impression that some who live along the Camino pride themselves on their contribution to the aesthetic experience of the pilgrimage. In late June, there was a lot of green, from both wild and cultivated plants. All that flora and fauna (including not only the aforementioned cattle, but also horses and donkeys on the farms), make for a variegated olfactory experience which is pleasant on the whole, if at times earthy.

I should probably mention that we went in late spring/early summer, the Solstice taking place during our trip, so it was an ideal time. Much later, and things get hotter and drier. From what I was told, Fall and Spring are the best times for the Camino.

Some of the farms have very old buildings made of native stone with slate or clay tile roofs. Some of these are in disrepair, but even the ones in use often have sturdy little plants growing in their fieldstone walls, which lends these buildings something the entire path boasts, excepting those few places where modern industry makes its mark: character. There is a great deal of character to the region.

So far, I have described the visual and olfactory sense experience. Aurally, the sounds of diverse birds makes the experience enjoyable (and uplifting: “I will cry like a young swallow, I will meditate like a dove,” said Isaias (38:14)), even if those lovely bird songs are occasionally interrupted by the aforementioned speakers dangling from teenagers’ backpacks emitting awful pop music — American, and sometimes very American-sounding trash in Spanish. Some actual musicians line the Camino, including a couple of bagpipers I heard, who provided us with welcome sounds.

If grace builds on nature, there is, in this pilgrim’s experience, anyway, very much of natural beauty to lift one’s mind and heart up to supernatural beauties and to Beauty Himself. Which is the point: The Holy Trinity is, after all, the ultimate pilgrimage destination.

One of the persons who stamped by Credencial was an American lady from Seattle. She and her husband own a farm in Galicia with lavender as their only crop. The sweet-scented flowering plant is harvested for its essential oils (which is also the case around Ávila, where one can purchase the oderiferous oil in a tourist shop). In addition to farming, the lady from Seattle sets up a table in front of her property, where she sells books and sometimes provides vegan fare for people who hunger for such stuff. (I failed to muster up the expected sympathy when she explained how difficult it is for vegans to make the Camino.)

For more than twenty years, Saint Benedict Center’s religious Brothers and Sisters have walked the Pilgrimage for Restoration from Lake George to Auriesville, New York — about the same distance my recent stretch of the Camino spanned — but in three days. The Auriesville pilgrimage, modeled after the Chartres pilgrimage, is done in brigades, and one is not supposed leave his brigade. If he slows down and drops back, he cannot be left behind the main column of pilgrims as there are safety personnel at the end who will compel him to take a ride. Besides the “safeties,” there are support personnel who provide bottled water along the way, and others driving trucks towing portable lavatories. The Camino has none of these things because they are not needed. There is a constant concourse of pilgrims walking, with many places to stop for water, food, and bathrooms. One can take it at his own pace. As a result, our gang of pilgrims stretched itself quite far so that we arrived at our daily destinations hours apart. This gives the experience a much different feel. On the Camino, I spent a lot of time all by myself, allowing me to pray the whole Divine Office, and a complete Dominican Rosary daily — and more private prayers and quiet time besides. All that was punctuated with dozens of “Buen Camino” wishes to and from fellow pilgrims encountered along the Way. Several people struck up conversations with me, some Catholic, some not; Americans, Spaniards, Cubans, Australians, New Zealanders, a Chinese Catholic from Hong Kong, and various and sundry others. Wearing the habit, naturally, made me a target of curious questions, which, in turn, provided occasions for evangelism.

After we arrived at the Cathedral and received our Compostelas, we prayed Holy Mass at a Church in the city dedicated to Saint Mary Salome (the mother of Saints James and John), then we took a guided tour of the Basilica, revered the body of the Holy Apostle beneath the high altar, hugged and kissed his statue atop the main altar (from behind), and saw most of the Basilica, including some fascinating old artifacts kept in the crypt and the museum. Yes, we saw the famous censer!

Canon Luke Zignego, an American priest of the Institute of Christ the King, was chaplain for the pilgrimage, and he was wonderful: He provided us with the traditional Latin Mass daily, along with confession, little spiritual talks on the bus, and a lot of edifying conversation besides. We also met two of the three Institute priests who work in and around Madrid: the Spanish Superior, Canon Raúl Esteban Olazábal, and Canon Francisco José Palomar Andrés, a very young priest who took us on a brisk walking tour of Madrid.

Don Francisco Palomar, a native of Valladolid, told us something I will not forget about Saint James. Jesus, as we know, had three favorite Apostles: Peter, James and John. These formed His innermost inner circle. They alone of the Twelve saw the raising of the daughter of Jairus, the Transfiguration, and the Agony in the Garden. In addition — and here is what I learned from Canon Palomar — these three were given gifts the other Apostles did not receive. To Saint Peter, Jesus gave the Church; to Saint John, Our Lady; and to Saint James … Spain!

And he’s been blessing it ever since.

Sign of Way of Saint James in Cahors, photo by Krzysztof Golik, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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